What does one do after a coup? That question faces Elle Fanning’s Catherine at the top of Hulu’s complex and hilarious second season of The Great, and Russia is still not ready to embrace her after Peter is temporarily put in his place. With layered and emotional performances from Fanning and Nicholas Hoult, The Great continues to impress with its sharp writing, confident direction, and innumerable cock jokes.
The first season of Tony McNamara’s comedy series ended in the middle of a war for the throne and the sophomore effort drops us in the middle of the action. Catherine and Peter have split the palace into their own respective spaces and take turns attacking the other’s camps to try and gain and another inch. “Her moves have elegance,” a surprised Peter says in the first episode as his court continues its traditional debauchery. Catherine’s biggest insurance is baby Paul growing in her belly–Peter won’t kill her because he is desperate for an heir (also see mountainous mommy issues from season one).
Alliances are drawn with Velementov and Orlo aggressively pushing Catherine to kill Peter to finish their coup, and Marial unapologetically places herself back in Catherine’s inner circle even though she was responsible for Peter’s resistance at the end of the first season. Grigor continues to be Peter’s pathetic cuckold lap dog in television’s twist but oddly functional friendship.
McNamara is acknowledging that leaders cannot get things done despite the overwhelming public outcry for change. Catherine must prove herself as effective ruler and get something achieved otherwise the Russian people will tear her down even faster, but it is naive for Catherine to assume that these “selfish, grasping fucks” are willing to reform anything. Catherine longs for a refined, European existence but she cannot melt the hearts of millions while expecting them to tear everything down and rebuild. It has to be tempting for McNamara to allow his characters to yell, scream, punch, and fuck all the live long day, but he challenges both Catherine and Peter to look inward at their own selfishness. Catherine envisions a Russia without slavery and equal rights for women, but she has to fight tradition as much as the people in her court.
Hoult, a master of the McNamarian delivery, takes that dangerous and violent boyishness and transforms it into something even more active. Fanning gives her most accomplished and emotional performance to date. We see her optimism give way to desperation and violence of her own. Throughout season two, she proclaims that she is Russia and her German heart swings allegiances more than ever before. Everything is earned with these two actors. Emmys all around, please.
Phoebe Fox, as Marial, can turn a phrase that is both calculated and funny. She wields a pistol in one of the season’s most satisfying moments. And then there is Gillian Anderson as Catherine’s mother, Joanna. When she comes to visit her pregnant daughter, she steps out of her carriage with her head bowed, but it is us that is in for the treat and should be returning a curtsy. Anderson devours every moment, every syllable as a woman desperate to push her daughters towards marital greatness. She coos, purrs, scratches, and pounces in her short arc, and she has one of the funniest moments of the year. You will know it when you see it. This is one of the most accomplished casts on television–a sublime ensemble who can turn a phrase as easily as they pull the trigger. The costumes and production design continue to be exquisite.
The second season of The Great delivers even more returns than the first season promised. Allow McNamara and his players to rewrite all of history. It will be hornier, funnier, and much better to look back upon.
The Great debuts its second season on November 19.